Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega. On Monday, tennis superstar Naomi Osaka decided to exit the French Open, which got underway this past weekend. Osaka had previously announced that she would not be participating in post-match press conferences at the tournament, citing mental health concerns. After her first-round win on Sunday, French Open organizers fined Osaka $15,000 for skipping her press conference.
Osaka was also warned by organizers of the four grand slam tennis tournaments that she risked a complete suspension from the French Open for refusing to speak with media. Following the news that she was leaving the tournament altogether, several prominent athletes expressed their support, including Steph Curry, Russell Wilson, and Serena Williams.
Serena Williams: I feel for Naomi. I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it's like. Like I said, I've been in those positions. We have different personalities and people are different. Not everyone is the same. I'm thick, other people are thin, so everyone is different and everyone handles things differently. You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to in the best way that she thinks she can.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Other current and former tennis pros have been more critical of Osaka's choice not to speak with the press. Osaka's announcement and the range of reactions it has received are part of a much longer history of black athletes questioning what they really owe to predominantly white reporters. Last week, Osaka used her Instagram account to link to another notable example, running back Marshawn Lynch speaking or rather not speaking to reporters in 2015.
Marshawn Lynch: I'm just here so I don't get fined. You all can sit here and ask me all the questions you all want to. I'm going to answer with the same answer so you all can shoot if you all please.
Reporter: [inaudible 00:01:59]
Marshawn: I'm here so I won't get fined.
Reporter: [inaudible 00:02:06]
Marshawn: I'm here so I won't get fined.
Reporter: [inaudible 00:02:10]
Marshawn: I'm here so I won't get fined.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For more, I'm now joined by Amira Rose Davis, assistant professor of History and African American Studies at Penn State and co-host of the Burn It All Down podcast. It's great to have you here, Amira.
Amira Rose: Great to be back.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also with us Dr. Caroline Brackette, who's assistant dean and associate professor at Mercer University's College of Health Professions. She's also a licensed professional counselor. Dr. Brackette, thank you for joining us as well.
Caroline Brackette: Thank you for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Amira, I'm going to start with you. Can you just walk us through the timeline a little bit? How do we go from Osaka's announcement last week that she was just going to not speak with the press at the French Open to her choice to actually exit the tournament entirely?
Amira Rose: Last week, she put out a pre-emptive statement saying heads up, I'm not going to do this for my own mental health. I know I'll get fined, I hope that they use the fine towards mental health initiatives and support. That was that. The immediate response to that was swift and varied critique suggestions that she should woman up, that this was part of her duties as an athlete.
Then the most significant response was not just the fine that she received after her first-round when and she didn't do the presser, but all four slams as the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open coming together to issue a joint statement, both to her and publicly that the first few lines said we stand by her, we're going support her mental health, etc and then very quickly turned to but just also so you know, not only will we continue to fine you, but these fines can escalate.
Also you could be in danger of we will default you from the tournament, we will remove you from the tournament. Naomi's response to that was to issue another statement via social media to say, I don't want to be a distraction. I was trying to get ahead of it. She disclosed her own mental health concerns in more detail. She offered up that she'd been battling depression, anxiety.
Then she said the best thing for her to do was to withdraw completely in protection of her mental health, and really pushing back by refusal, by saying no at being forced or strong-armed by the slams into participation. That's where we are now where we see a number of conversations, again, occurring on the heels of her decision.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dr. Brackette, I'm going to come to you on this because that idea of protecting mental health, it certainly seems to me if she said, "I have a sore elbow. I have a torn muscle. I have a twisted ankle, and therefore I'm not going to compete," then everyone would be fine with that because the protection of the physical health is considered acceptable, reasonable, and real, but that saying, "I have emotional or mental health that needs a little protection as well," elicits this kind of pushback.
Caroline Brackette: Yes, I think that it raises a bigger issue in the disparity that we see in the way people treat mental health conditions versus physical conditions. When someone is experiencing issues related to depression or anxiety, you often want them to do things that are going to alleviate symptoms and to focus on their self-care. When a person reaches out or expresses that they're going to do that, they're experiencing some backlash.
I think that it's important to recognize that if a person is saying, "This is what I need to perform at my best, but also for myself, my own mental wellness," that we respect that. As a college administrator, but also someone who worked with students with disabilities and mental health is covered under in the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and there's a process of accommodating those disabilities.
Mental health is one of those and we just need to take a step back and recognize that there are times when we're putting too much pressure on people to be what we want them to be and not giving them that space to do what they need to do when it's in their best interest.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'll say maybe that's just us and not just we, but maybe specifically media. Let's take a listen to Osaka at a Wimbledon press conference back in 2019.
Reporter: When you play someone who you lost to so recently, how hard is it not to have that in your head?
Naomi Osaka: How hard is it not to have that in my head? Very hard. I don't know how to answer that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Amira, listening to her respond to that question back in 2019, it seems it's pretty easy to hear how difficult that is for her. I'm wondering, are reporters really just the most awful? I don't mean that in a jokey way but quite seriously, it's pretty painful to have to live your good and your bad in such a public space?
Amira Rose: Yes, precisely. I think there's three different things in operation here but first off of that, absolutely. Naomi has been talking about this and gesturing to this for a while. She's very introverted and that is very clear and leading up to this, the narratives around her being really bad on play and was she worried about getting another first-round defeat because she's bad on the surface, certainly was really heavy on her.
I think that there's some particulars around here about sports media and the role of the journalist. We're academics, when I get a fellowship rejection, five minutes later I'm not sitting in front of people telling them what I did wrong, and how I'm thinking about it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How did that revise and resubmit feel?
Amira Rose: Exactly. I think that one of the conversations that is being had, of course, is what is the function of this presser, what is required of athletes. I think Naomi is part of growing cadre of athletes who are pushing back and saying, "You have access to our bodies, you have our weight, you have our height, you have our injury history, you have all these things, and then you also feel entitled to have all of our minds at on your terms when you require them."
Particularly black athletes who are parrying this with their right to protest, are parrying this with conversations about fan abuse that they are dealing with. They're saying, hey, they're using their shifting power and their own presence on social media to push back and say this, "We shouldn't have to accept this at our place of employment. We shouldn't just have to grin and bear it. We shouldn't just have to go along with it because that's what you do.
You may have bought a ticket to the circuits but we don't have to be your clowns. This is where we're drawing the line on our labor." She's also absolutely part of that conversation because you can hear in that clip how she's feeling about it but you have all these other instances with Naomi, where she's pushing back or trying to reframe the kind of questions she's getting. That points to one of the issues. Journalists, they are not just the worst, but there is a particular recycling of narratives. When she says in her statement that she's had depression since the US Open in 2018, which is, of course, her and Serena and that big hullabaloo, that gets brought up every time they play each other, every time she goes to the US Open, every time she thinks about it. This regurgitation is part of what she's pointing to.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Listen, first of all, I'm about to get a T-shirt that says, "You may have bought a ticket to the circus, but I don't have to be your clown." I'm going to wear it every day, I really appreciate that framing. Dr. Brackette, I want to come to you on that in part because earlier we heard in the clip Serena Williams saying, "People deal with things differently. I'm thick, she's thin."
I don't think she meant that as a dig, but rather just as descriptive. I also kept thinking, "Yes, she's also two decades younger." I think Serena's desire to give her a hug is in part that sense of like she's very young still and coming through this process. Given the work that you do with young people at exactly this age, what are some of the challenges for having to manage failure or those kinds of repeated re-traumas in such a public way?
Dr. Caroline Brackette: Yes, I think that that's important to look at. When you look at the age that she's in, she's still in that identity development stage in her life and hearing messages from people and the media are not going to help when they're negative towards her. That's not to say that as an athlete that you're not going to face some criticism. I do think that it's important, for one, she's using her voice and when she starts to use her voice, then she can control her narrative.
It's important to think about when people are asking you questions, they're asking questions to write the story that they want to write about you. You do lose some of that control that you have when you're sitting in those press conferences. I do think that it's important-- One of the things that she said in her statement is that she reached out to the tournament to talk to them after the tournament because of the pressure that she was feeling during the time that she was playing.
Also being open to having some communication about how can we make this better for the athletes, for the fans, for the press, and I think that that's an important consideration. Systemically, how do they work together-- that's the tournament, the athletes, the press, to create a system that works for all? That's not saying that you're going to give athletes a pass, but taking into consideration the person.
We need to have that person-first language, they're are people who play professional sports and so putting the person back into what they're doing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That idea of person first is also it feels to me, Amira, connected to important identities. She's young, she's a star, she's well paid. She's also a Black woman barely out of being a Black girl and it does feel to me like our public willingness to accept no, is gendered. Boys and men are much more able to be like, "No, no, no, not going to do it." When women say no, that's a whole nother kind of thing. I'm wondering how much of this feels intersectional, race and gendered to you, Amira?
Amira Rose Davis: Bound up together. I think that last point about how she indicated in her statement that she wants to work with the slams and really underscore this moving forward is really important because it's also her recognizing that while she is bound up in this very familiar kind of the double bind of being Black and a woman, she's also well paid. She's also at the top of the sport, and there are people on the tour who are suffering mental health concerns that can't eat a $15,000 fine.
There are people who cannot afford to withdraw from a circuit. This is a continuation of her using her platform. More importantly, I heard a bit about the earlier segment, which was so important to talk about, the mental health concerns of Black girls who are often overlooked, and all the ways that missed a strong, superwoman, Black girl magic is really creating mental health concerns, especially around depression, anxiety for Black girls and Black women.
The times where we really get to have these conversations when Meghan Markel talks about it, when Naomi Osaka talks about it. That visibility of this conversation, bound up in being a Black woman, is also really it's the condition of how it's received, as well as what she has to put out to the world.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Amira Rose Davis is an assistant professor of History and African American Studies at Penn State and Dr. Caroline Brackette is an assistant dean and associate professor at Mercer University's College of Health Professions. Thank you so much to both of you for being here.
Dr. Caroline Brackette: Thanks for having me.
Amira Rose Davis: Thank you for having me today.
[00:15:12] [END OF AUDIO]
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